European Satellite Makers Shedding U.S.-made Content

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PARIS — A decade-long program to reduce Europe’s dependence on U.S.-built satellite electronics components has begun to bear fruit, with the average U.S. electronics content in a European satellite now at 60 percent compared with 75 percent in 2006, according to estimates made by Europe’s Eurospace space industry association.

European governments’ goal is to keep chipping away at the U.S. share of European satellites so that by 2020, satellite electronics are 50 percent European and 45 percent American, with the remaining share being mainly from Japanese suppliers, according to the 20-nation European Space Agency (ESA).

As is common in Europe, a hodgepodge of government agencies have been involved in what is sometimes referred to as the European Components Initiative, which began about 10 years ago as European satellite builders in government and industry measured the effects of the U.S. International Traffic in Arms Regulations (ITAR) restrictions on technology transfer.

All U.S. satellites and satellite components were placed under ITAR in 1999 to keep the technology out of the hands of Chinese rocket builders, but the suite of rules added time, cost and complexity to the process of exporting satellite components to just about anywhere.

Determining which components are most critical and then seeding and cultivating a sustainable supply chain — no simple task given the niche aspect of many space technologies — have taken years.

ESA has struck accords with the French and German space agencies on a division of responsibility to reduce duplication of technology development efforts. The European Commission, the executive arm of the 27-nation European Union (EU), placed the space components initiative into its seven-year Framework Program for Research and Development, which is ending this year. The commission is proposing a follow-on program for the seven-year budget that starts in 2014.

ESA and Japan’s space agency, JAXA, have an agreement on components development as well, to encourage Japanese manufacturers to take the place of U.S. builders. As a result, Japanese components now account for nearly 5 percent of the electronic, electrical and electromechanical (EEE) components on European satellites, up from about zero in 2006, according to Eurospace.

EEE components on an average satellite represent about 10 million euros ($13.5 million) of the satellite’s cost, according to ESA.

Wolfgang Veith, ESA’s head of product assurance and safety, said it is common for the development of any given EEE component to take 10 years from initial investment to when it reaches Technology Readiness Level 8 and is fit for launch and operations, and thus in position to provide a return on investment.

In a Jan. 31 presentation to the annual Research and Technology Day in Toulouse, France, organized by the French space agency, CNES, Veith said ESA’s Technology Research Program is one source of funding for seeding technology independence, as is its General Technology Support Program.

ESA spends about 10 million euros per year on the components initiative and is counting on the European Commission to increase its involvement in its next seven-year budget. The budget is still being debated by European Union governments.

In Europe, satellite builder Thales Alenia Space of France and Italy has taken heat from the United States and from some in Europe for having developed a satellite product that is free of ITAR-restricted components. These satellites are thus eligible to be launched on Chinese rockets, an option that is not available for satellites with U.S. components absent a waiver from the U.S. president.

The recent passage of a law giving the U.S. president the discretion to relax export restrictions for certain satellite technologies is viewed as good news in Europe. Francois Auque, chief executive of Europe’s Astrium space hardware and services company, said Astrium has continued to purchase major subsystems for its satellites from U.S. suppliers despite ITAR. Any easing of rules, he said, should benefit Astrium.

Jean-Loic Galle, chief executive of Thales Alenia Space, was more measured in his assessment of the change, whose exact nature will not be clear until the implementing regulations have been published.

Galle said that an early assessment of the new ITAR posture is that some satellite components that previously were not a part of the ITAR regime will now be placed on the ITAR-controlled list.

It is not the first time that European officials have complained that the ITAR regulations’ perimeter is not constant. The problem is especially acute if a non-ITAR component is licensed for export, is sold and integrated onto a satellite and only then slapped with the ITAR-controlled label.

As was the case in the United States with all satellite-related items becoming subject to ITAR in 1999, the European Component Initiative is now solidly embedded in European institutional policy and will be difficult to reverse. It is much wider than the occasional ITAR-free satellite sold by Thales Alenia Space.

Small and midsize companies, whose product lines are dependent on a “Buy European” policy at ESA, the national space agencies and by European prime contractors, will demand continued support or threaten to shut down operations. Some of these product lines were created and are sustained by the European Component Initiative.

Didier Faivre, ESA’s director of navigation, told the Fifth Conference on EU Space Policy Jan. 30 that even a technology as crucial as the manufacturer of atomic clocks for Europe’s Galileo navigation satellite system is dependent on “just a few 10s of engineers. If you lose this competence, you lose the program,” Faivre said.